Sheffield Wednesday shocked high-flying local rivals Barnsley as a Jordan Rhodes double gave a glimmer of hope in their Championship survival battle.
Rhodes struck either side of the break to give Darren Moore his first victory as boss and end an eight-match winless run, narrowing the gap to safety at the bottom to six points.
Carlton Morris’ goal ensured a nervy finish but it was not enough as Barnsley’s stunning 12-match unbeaten run was brought an end, though they remain in fifth place.
Story of the match
Barnsley began as might be expected considering the two sides’ respective form, in command. Defender Michael Sollbauer lifted their best chance of the whole half over at the back post from an Alex Mowatt corner, while Daryl Dike brought a save from Joe Wildsmith, who was frequently tested early following his late promotion to the starting line-up after an injury to Keiren Westwood.
But Wednesday soon found joy with their own approach, causing all manner of problems with balls in behind the home defence. One long ball found Rhodes and Brad Collins, shaky throughout, missed completely, but the striker lacked the necessary composure to find the open goal as his quickly-taken effort fell wide.
However, he would have the chance to atone. When skipper Barry Bannan half-volleyed a cross in his direction, Rhodes found himself with the perfect chance, a free header in the centre of the six-yard box, and made no mistake this time with a decisive finish to give his side the lead at the break.
Within nine minutes of the restart, not only that miss but years of frustration at the club seemed to have been put behind him. Again he simply put himself in the right place, benefitting from Liam Palmer’s challenge of a sloppy Callum Styles that allowed Windass to roll the ball across for a tap-in.
Valerien Ismael is not one to hang about with substitutions and they usually have great effect, but his triple change at the break did little to shift the match in Barnsley’s favour. Morris was the liveliest and one lay-off set up Dike to strike straight at Wildsmith, but a comeback did not look likely until his goal with 12 minutes left.
Callum Brittain launched a throw into the penalty area and Aapo Halme, a fellow half-time substitute, knocked the ball onto Morris, who hit a fine volley from just inside the box beyond the motionless Wildsmith.
With that lifeline, Barnsley pushed to keep their unbeaten run going, but besides a free-kick struck over the bar by Mowatt, who also blocked from Andre Green at the other end, they could not carve out another chance.
Rhodes a new man
Since the arrival of Moore, Rhodes seems to be a transformed striker. After coming off the bench in his first two matches in charge, the former Scotland international has started all three in the past week and excelled.
Against Norwich City last Sunday he found the net early on as Wednesday took the fight to the Championship leaders, before assisting Windass’ goal in an excellent performance in the midweek draw with Huddersfield Town.
His contribution was again immense here, making the obvious difference in the metric strikers will always be most judged. The three goals in the past six days have doubled his tally for the season – and match his total for the entirety of the previous campaign.
For years, the criticism of Rhodes has been that he is a poacher and brings nothing else to a team, but under Moore he appears able and willing to be more than that, putting in the hard work in winning balls and linking play as well as leading the press from the front. And, of course, he is being fed the chances he craves and is making them count.
Reds need break
Clubs across the Championship will be relieved for the breather provided by upcoming the international break, but surely few more than the division’s most intense team.
The only thing more relentless than Barnsley is the schedule, which has seen the Oakwell side play twice a week ever since their FA Cup clash with Chelsea six weeks ago, and there were signs of fatigue in their performance against Sheffield Wednesday.
They were unable to overwhelm opponents who kept with them stride-for-stride, despite a fantastic record against teams outside the top third of the table who are so often beaten by the ferocity of their play, and both goals came from mistakes that fresher bodies and minds might have avoided.
Ismael believed his side should have two penalties, both involving the determined Dike who appeared to be pulled down by Tom Lees in the first half and held back from a corner by Joey Pelupessy in the second period. Either of those being given would have made a big difference, but regardless there should be no need for panic on the back of this one result.
Man of the match - Jordan Rhodes (Sheff Wed)
His two finishes did not need to be world class and he should have scored another, but for his all-round effort in leading the fight from the front, Rhodes was key again.